This is the newest draft of a poem I’ve covered in a couple of posts now:
The dark night is a lie which floats around me a denial of the lamps and cars and houses, but true to my soul, which can no longer know what will could possibly light them my feet find ground as firm as ever, except the odd puddle from six days’ drizzle and my lips press…
Today I’m going to draft the poem from a few updates ago, tentatively titled Church Going, after the Larkin poem. I thought it might interest somebody out there for me to talk through this editing process. There is a persistent lie we tell young writers, that poems are spontaneous and magical, and most of us…
What I’ve done in this draft, you’ll probably notice immediately, is pare down the entire expression into three stanzas, from the last draft’s seven. The idea behind this draft was to restructure it behind a specific hospital, Seton. I originally replaced the old framing with simple biographic info anyone could find — Seton was a wealthy christian who, after the death of her husband, founded a hospital to serve the children of the poor.
In this draft I have erased that information, assuming my audience is smart enough to be able to google the names “Seton” and “BlueMountain Capital Management” for themselves if the message of the poem is somehow unclear. As a result the whole composition seems to stumble around a little, almost unsettling, but I have no idea if this is a result of my familiarity with the old context, or the writing itself. This is something I’ll only be able to discern with the distance of a week or two.
I can’t think of how to discuss the process that extracted this draft from the last. The essential action is holding the old poem at arms’ length and constructing a wholly new one from the same ideas, putting in direct quotes where they remain relevant. The decision-making here is not referential to the last draft. That is: I do not go through the content and decide explicitly what I want to keep and what I want to cut. Instead I start a new narrative, and naturally discover what parts of the old one still deserve a place.
As a result it’s fair to call this a new poem, but it’s also a new poem that renders the old poem obsolete. There are parts of the old draft I wished I could have kept, and maybe they will find a new home someday, but in this context they felt merely descriptive. “Revealing God to be a business and his bible paperwork” is a fun line, but it had to be cut because it is essentially restating the thesis of the poem, underlining it. I felt after much consideration that it is too clever.
I guess this is something I’ve wanted to say for a while, to somebody, for some reason, so let’s get into it. Cleverness is a glib intellectual activity, and it has its place, but I find it to be diametrically opposed to emotion in writing. Whereas I love clever comedy, I despise clever poets. Poetry at its best weaves together appeals to what I will, somewhat lackingly, call the reader’s id, ego, and superego. It’s not just that a clever line targets someone’s high intellect, it’s that if a line is being described as clever, that means that it failed to have any other impact.
After all, many of my favorite poets could quite easily be described as clever, but they rarely are. This is because cleverness, if used cleverly, becomes practically invisible. The things we call clever are merely clever, not meaningful or impactful. It is, in a sense, a narcissistic writer who stops at being clever and thinks he or she has done enough. It is my contention that, if you’re working on a poem and feel it lacks emotional impact, the first thing you should try is cutting what you think are your most clever lines.
So I did that. The poem is still very obvious, I think. It’s almost draconic, the way it beats you over the head with its message. It was my thinking that this is necessary, that in a sense the hospital is so mundane and so understood, its emotional impact so set in our experiences, that I had to beat it with repetitive, overpowering expressions, to make the reader see a hospital the way I want it to be seen. Doubtless the poem would be better if it were less obvious, but I think that would require a change in scope or subject matter.
The more I look at this, the more I think at least a little more drafting is necessary. “Refugees” as the first word especially needs to be changed, as it is a very weighty word which has nothing to do with the core concept except its literal definition “those seeking refuge”. I have other ideas but they’re yet too ethereal to put into words, and may come to nothing.